How To Break Any Habit
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Right about the time when I realized I needed to get serious about my life I became obsessed with habit change. I knew that I needed to transform my habits in order to improve the quality of my life. Did you know that over 40 percent of your day is spent doing habits? And that is without accounting for sleeping. Neither did I, at the time. However, I did know I was doing things that I shouldn’t be and that was enough to get me started. It was time to eliminate my pizza-a-day-and-playing-computer-games behavior.
I don’t think I even got any enjoyment out of my days. It was like I was hypnotized. I would just sit down in front of my computer as soon as I woke up and next thing you know it would be nighttime. I knew that I needed to sort out this mess.
First thing I did was to go on Amazon and buy the first five books that came up after I wrote ’habits’ in the search box. Good thing too, for two of those books ended up changing my life. One of them is called The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg and this is the book I want to talk about today.
Duhigg’s book is the definitive guide to habit change. It really has everything you need to know about the process and it is also filled with awesome examples. I recommend you take a look at it.
"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." -- Aristotle
A habit is simply something you end up doing without really thinking about it. Here’s the habit loop as Duhigg describes it. First there is the cue, the trigger that tells your brain to go in automatic mode and which habit to use. Then comes the routine, which can either be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, comes the reward which helps your brain determine whether this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time this loop becomes automatic and a habit is born.
Understanding this feedback loop is important because it lets us realize that once a habit is formed, the brain stops participating in the decision-making process. Therefore, unless one is deliberate about fighting the habit it will just happen automatically.
The habit loop is so powerful that there are many examples of advertising campaigns that relied on it for selling their products. The first toothpaste ever made, Pepsodent, was marketed as a source of removing the plaque from one’s teeth. This plaque isn’t actually bad for the teeth, it is just a convenient way to get us all to feel a need for the product.
This particular habit loop goes like this. First, you run your tongue through your teeth. You feel this harmless plaque. This triggers the cue for the behavior - washing your teeth. Then you run your tongue through your teeth and no longer feel anything - the reward.
Pepsodent was tremendously successful. It created millions for the advertiser and it got a ton of people to start brushing their teeth daily. Just like that, a new habit was born.
However, just creating a habit loop for a particular behavior is not enough to form a habit. You also need for the reward to be sufficient enough and repeated enough times to create a craving. This means you need to repeat the loop enough times for it to become automatic and for you to get to a point where you start craving the reward as soon as the cue kicks in - before you do the behavior.
This craving is the secret ingredient in habit formation.
What other products’ success is based off of knowledge of the habit loop and the secret ingredient? Two simple examples are shampoo and email.
You must already know shampoo foams like crazy, but is there a medical reason? The truth is, it’s just for kicks. You don’t need the foam for the shampoo to work. However, companies have realized it is a great reward system for using their product. It’s very easy for people to come to expect and even crave all the foam when using shampoo. It plays a huge part in forming the habit.
What about email? It is the perfect habit-forming product. First there’s the cue. The simple buzz, or pop-up of a number in your inbox telling you you’ve got unread mail. Then there’s the expected behavior - you reading the email. Finally is the reward, which comes in many forms. Removing the numbers from the inbox is satisfying enough on it’s own. Then, there is also the added pleasure of communicating, feeling like you’ve gotten work done, etc. Before you know it, you start hearing the buzz and crave checking the mail. If however, you disable the buzz or notification, you will find you can do hours of work without even thinking about your email.
You might wonder how long you need to do something for it to create a craving. A study by University College London found that you need, on average, 66 days to form a habit. So just in two months time you can change your habits, and thus- your life. And there is some good news. It is okay if you skip a day or two. The important thing is to stick with it long enough for it to become automatic.
What’s the best way to use your newfound knowledge of the habit loop to start creating your own empowering habits? How did I manage to defeat my unhealthy habits? What is the golden rule of habit change?
It is hard to put it better than the way Duhigg does in his book, so here’s a quote straight from it.
"A Golden Rule Of habit change... You can never truly extinguish bad habits. Rather, to change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine. That’s the rule: If you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit. Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same."
Let’s work through an example. Assume that every day at work, when you get agitated or restless and thus need a break, you go to the cafeteria. There you have some food and feel great again. The cue is your restlessness or agitation. The routine is having a snack. The reward is the much-needed break. What can you do to break that habit?
You keep the same cue and the same reward, but you change the behavior. Next time you feel agitated, instead of going to the cafeteria, go to a friend’s desk and have a chat. That way you will have the same reward - a much-needed break, but you will not indulge in the same behavior. Another option might be to go for a 10-15 minute walk outside. You will still get a good break, but this time it will be in a much healthier way.
"Be careful of your thoughts, for your thoughts become your words. Be careful of your words, for your words become your actions. Be careful of your actions, for your actions become your habits. Be careful of your habits, for your habits become your character. Be careful of your character, for your character becomes your destiny." -- Chinese proverb, author unknown
Almost all patterns that exist in our lives - how we think, how we spent our time, how we react to certain stimuli, what we eat - are habits. Now you should know much more about how those habits are formed and how they really work. Now you have the power, knowledge, freedom, and ultimately, the responsibility to change them. Your life and your destiny is in your hands. It’s up to you how it all plays out.